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Lovie is Gone. What’s Next?

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Where do the Illini turn now?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

News broke late Sunday morning that Lovie Smith had been relieved of his duties as the University of Illinois’ head football coach. The announcement came on the heels of the Illini’s 28-10 loss to Northwestern, the team’s sixth consecutive defeat in the series.

There’s no doubt that Lovie Smith was a credible, meaningful hire. There’s also no doubt that his tenure was mired in disappointment. Smith finished 17-39 in 4+ seasons, including 10-33 in conference play. The Fighting Illini never finished higher than fourth in the B1G West (2019), and only won more than two conference games under Lovie.

2016: 2-7 (6th)

2017: 0-9 (7th)

2018: 2-7 (7th)

2019: 4-5 (4th)

2020: 2-5 (6th)

I know I’m not alone in being surprised by the timing of Lovie’s firing — though I’m not arguing that change was needed. With the chaos of the coronavirus causing cancellations, postponements, and losses of revenue across college football, it just didn’t seem likely that the university would pull the plug. AD Josh Whitman had exhibited much patience when it came to Lovie, but obviously things just didn’t work. Sports are a results-based business — the results weren’t there, so the business decision had to be made.

Lovie has always been a mild-mannered coach, but he seemed disinterested towards the end of his tenure, being terse with the media and apparently not willing to take responsibility for the team’s lack of productivity on the field. How much of that was stress-related we’ll never really know. It was also reported last week that Smith declined to attend a virtual coaches’ clinic in order to focus on the rest of the season. For a program that’s been at or near the bottom of Big Ten recruiting, that explanation didn’t sit well with media & fans.

Are the Fighting Illini better off than they were four-and-a-half years ago? Probably. But the bar was pretty low — almost subterranean — when Lovie arrived. And expectations should be higher than “occasionally finishing above .500 in the Big Ten.”

Now the challenge for Josh Whitman starts again. He landed “his” guy once before, here’s hoping he’ll find him again. As we’ve found out...this probably won’t be a quick fix.